Early in the morning, fog clings to the thorny brushland of the Wild Horse Desert. The weak, salmon-colored sun filters through the dove-blue haze. You can barely make out the forms of a few cowboys dressed in brown canvas jackets, laughing and joking in the distance. They have been there since the night before, tending a hole in the ground, making barbacoa.
What is Barbacoa?
Barbacoa is the velvety succulent meat taken from the roasted head of a calf. When a calf is slaughtered on the ranch, every part is used. What modern consumers would throw away, we find ways of cooking - which often turns up a delicious delicacy. The entire calf's head (minus the hide and horns) is traditionally roasted in a pit that has been dug into the ground and lined with hot mesquite coals and maguey (century plant) leaves, which results in what we call barbacoa. Every bit of the head, from the tongue to the brains, is consumed. Barbacoa is sold all over South Texas and Mexico for a special Sunday morning breakfast treat. Purchased by the pound, it is whisked home while still hot and made into delicious taquitos with fresh warm corn tortillas and a good salsa. I like serving plenty of crisp onion, cilantro, acidic lime juice, and spicy, tangy salsa on the side, as they cut through the rich flavor of the meat and provide a perfect balance of flavor and texture.
As most people don't have the real estate (or the desire) to bake a calf's head in a hole in the ground, I have put together an abbreviated version using just the jowl meat of a calf. This part is tender, unctuous, and delicious in every way - many consider this the best part of a good barbacoa.
Authentic Barbacoa Recipe
- 2 pounds beef cheek (jowl)
- 24-32 fresh corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1 cup finely chopped onion
- Any salsa
- 4 limes, sliced into wedges
How to Make Homemade Barbacoa
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Sprinkle the meat lightly with salt and wrap in a double layer of aluminum foil so as to not allow any steam to escape. Place the foil packet in a baking pan and bake for at least 6 hours, until tender.
Remove the meat from the foil and finely chop it. Serve immediately, making tacos with the meat, cilantro, onion, and salsa, adding just a few drops of lime juice on top.
Notes: Beef cheek mean, as well as whole cow's heads, are available in most Latin American supermarkets, or you can ask your butcher if he or she can get it for you. You can make barbacoa in the oven a day in advance; it reheats wonderfully the next day for a traditional breakfast.
If your corn tortillas are not freshly made, or if you don't have time to heat the tortillas on a comal (griddle) on the stove, wrap the tortillas in foil, and place in the oven for 20 minutes to heat as the barbacoa finishes its cooking time.